Journalist Roland Herr discussed the market, margins and tunnellers with Dr. Klaus Rieker, Managing Director of the tunnelling division, Wayss & Freytag Ingenieurbau AG in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The father of three in his early fifties has been engaged in tunnelling and foundation engineering since 1989 and looks back on international experience in underground construction.
Herr Dr. Rieker, where have you mainly been involved in tunnelling up till now?
Throughout the roughly 25 years of my professional life I have mainly been engaged in Western Europe and Asia, where it was principally Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia.
Which was the biggest and most interesting project during this quarter of a century?
That’s hard to say as the perspective on the projects has changed in the course of time. Early in my career I was only responsible for one project from the planning stage until it was handed over to the client, having to look after this single construction project – but right down to the smallest detail. Later on my range of duties expanded and I was active as project or branch manager. Nowadays my field of responsibility is much larger and has extended to attending to many different projects at the same time. This is extremely fulfilling as it exceeds the classical activities of the construction engineer.
Nonetheless, I sometimes look back with a nostalgic feeling to the time when I was involved in individual projects: I particularly recall a project in Taiwan. I had just turned 31 and was there responsible as project manager. The challenges posed related to the particular facets of Chinese culture, which really foresaw older people as the responsible persons in charge. As a result it took some time until I was accepted as an equal partner by those in charge of the project on behalf of the Taiwanese client. On site everyone, from the simple labourer to the client, had if anything expected a project manager of the age I am now, namely early 50s. And then of course there was the language: all consultations with the client had to be held through an interpreter. At the end of the official talks, we resorted to English on site.
Singapore was highly interesting in terms of the size of the project. There we constructed a Metro line section in the city centre with a Korean partner. I’ll never forget the profusion of languages involved: around 30 different nationalities were engaged in the project team, I had to forge together. It was great fun, facing this challenge in international tunnelling, working together with people of various nationalities, with different languages and in some cases completely diverse cultures to accomplish this project. In the process, it was necessary to integrate or at least establish the common denominator for all the various qualifications, skills and mentalities.
Seen from the financial point of view, the projects that we have accomplished in Western Europe in recent years are much more impressive. One of the biggest projects worth mentioning here is the Liefkenshoek Tunnel in Belgium worth almost 700 million euros.
How long has Wayss & Freytag been engaged in the tunnelling sector?
Wayss & Freytag is the company which developed hydro shield technology for mechanized tunnelling in Germany together with Herrenknecht. In close collaboration the development of hydro shield machines was advanced and the first hydro shield drives executed during the 1960s. Since then Herrenknecht has become one of the leading manufacturers of tunnel boring machines throughout the world. At the same time, Robbins has boosted tunnelling internationally in the field of hard rock tunnel boring machines. Wayss & Freytag attempts to speak with various tunnel boring machine manufacturers prior to submitting offers for tunnel projects as the technical solution has to fit. Ultimately the manufacturers must put forward a competitive offer, which we have to reflect in the prices as contractor. At the same time, it can also involve a drive, where a used machine can be suitable.
How has tunnelling changed from a contractor’s viewpoint, as seen by Wayss & Freytag?
It’s easy to say that it’s now more difficult than ever and that everything was better in the past. Undoubtedly competition in Europe has become harder also quite simply because there are fewer projects around. And although in Germany capacities on the construction market have diminished by 50 %, there are still enough firms and persons around to fight bitterly for the few available contracts. Although projects are becoming increasingly transparent, accomplishing major projects and their recognition by the general public is becoming more difficult. Contracts for infrastructure projects now tend to be laid out in such a way that risk distribution is increasingly to the disadvantage of the contractor. Thus the probability of completing a project profitably is diminishing.
Elsewhere, e. g. in English-speaking countries, by and large contracts are set out differently from here in Germany so that the risks of a construction project are distributed in a different, even fairer way between the client and the contractor.
Let’s turn from the machines to the people involved. Is it harder to find experienced, proficient tunnellers?
Actually I would like to relate this problem not simply to tunnelling but engineering in general. In Germany we need more construction engineers than are currently being produced by the universities. This development has gradually come to a head in recent years so that nowadays a young graduate construction engineer can actually choose the company he wishes to work for. That wasn’t always the case: up until a few years ago we were able to select future engineering staff, and today it tends to be the other way round. However, what is now becoming a problem is that members of staff must be more flexible than ever particularly in tunnelling. After all, their jobs can take them all over Germany, Europe and even beyond. Members of staff must be prepared to move around as needed. Today we can observe that many applicants are committed to solid partnerships, in which the other partner also has an interesting and lucrative career so that the willingness to transfer abroad has greatly decreased.
As far as I am concerned tunnelling and foundation engineering, building the infrastructure, remains a very exciting field of activity involving major challenges. One must constantly contend with different geologies, varying conditions on site and the project’s peculiarities. Construction abroad and having to deal with different nationalities, mentalities, people, alien cultures and, in some cases, quite other ways of life and working is what makes this field of activity so interesting. It is fascinating to become a part of the family of tunnellers, constantly encountering many well-known faces at new projects scattered around the world during your career.
How large is the proportion of in-house activity in Wayss & Freytag’s case?
In tunnelling our own input is relatively high. This begins at the planning stage – planning the segments for example, working out the supporting forces at the face, planning temporary measures for starting-up the TBM or excavating cross-passages. As far as the execution is concerned, we pursue Wayss & Freytag’s tried-and-tested philosophy of filling key positions with our own staff. Our regular staff members are also involved in construction projects abroad. Local work forces are only used for secondary activities. In this way, we have teams in action, which are well coordinated so that they are able to achieve rapid progress and in turn, the required quality, especially when a project is starting up.
Our thanks for that informative insight!